As I wait for the call from India to connect, Leander Paes’s white and gold symbol of a leaping tennis player suddenly flashes across the screen. “Hello, Alex!” he says with a big and friendly voice that resonates across the phone. I greet Paes in turn, and while we wait for Mahesh Bhupathi to join us, we chat about India.
I briefly mention the Indian heritage on my father’s side. “Have I ever been?” he asks me. I admit I have never visited the subcontinent but say I must go. Bhupathi connects, and I formally introduce myself to them both.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Paes and Bhupathi dominated the doubles tour. In 1999 they achieved the number one doubles ranking, winning Roland Garros and Wimbledon the same year.
They were able to repeat their Roland Garros victory in 2001 and won a total of 25 ATP titles by the time their partnership came to an end.
The “Indian Express” were known for their flair and aggressive style of play. Bhupathi would provide the power with big serves and deep groundstrokes, while Paes would lithely cover the net and volley winners away with a kind of Federesque artistry. It made for a complementary pairing in tactics and rocketed the sportsmen to celebrity status in India.
Federer himself competed against them in the 2004 Olympics Round of 16, though he was defeated alongside countryman Yves Allegro. Federer would avenge the defeat with Stan Wawrinka in the 2008 Olympics, overcoming Paes and Bhupathi in the quarter-finals.
2004 Olympics, Men’s Round of 16 Doubles
Though they achieved enormous success as a doubles team, the relationship was at times fraught with difficulty.
In 2006 the pair went through a two-year hiatus and would often compete against each other in rival teams. The 2011 ATP finals was the last tournament they played together, with disagreements over the 2012 Olympic team perhaps ending any hope of a joint professional future.
The exact details of the separation are unknown, but for the first time, after years of offers and approaches to document their past on film, they have agreed to take part in a new series.
Break Point, which will be streaming on ZEE5 from 1 October, will examine their decorated career and ultimate split.
Paes and Bhupathi have put their differences aside and come together to reveal their history with candour.
“The process was long and important,” Bhupathi begins, with a “responsibility of telling the stories.” So much has been speculated about why the two parted; I felt a strong desire from both that they wanted to set the record straight.
Paes explains that “[we] see too many biopics…only sugar-coating the good things, only show the wins and the positivity…whereas one of the really brave things about Mahesh and I, is that we’re happy to do things very real.”
“We’re happy to show the things that we could have done better. We’re happy to show the things that we made mistakes in.”
There is a remarkable sense of unity, too, that making the documentary has brought Paes and Bhupathi to a place of reconciliation. There is no hint of animosity or grievance. The two hold each other in high respect.
Break Point is also set to be a motivational underdog tale of how the duo hailed from a country that had no prior grand slam champions yet were able to trailblaze such success.
Like two brothers, we leant on each other and made our mistakes and did some great things together.Leander Paes
For Paes, it is the “inspirational story…of how two young Indian boys have grown up in an ecosystem of sport that did not have the infrastructure to build Wimbledon champions.”
“The ecosystem here in the 90s, there was no manual to tell you – if you did this and this, you’d be number one in the world. So in that, Mahesh and I were pioneering through different methodologies, training systems, and lifestyles, trying to figure out how to win Wimbledon. And we only had each other to lean on.”
“Yes, we had certain coaches who came and went, trainers who came and went, we had…managers who came and went. But the one constant was each other. So hence like two brothers, we leant on each other and made our mistakes and did some great things together. So this Break Point story is a complete inspirational story.”
Paes also commended the production team at ZEE5, who obtained the crucial archival footage that helped depict the “human emotions” of their journey to Wimbledon victory and beyond.
We learnt how to play on all surfaces and be successful on all surfaces, which is why…we have the results.Mahesh Bhupathi
One of the keys to their success was having an all-court game. Managing the transition from the clay of Roland Garros to the Wimbledon grass was also important.
“Both have their own challenges,” Bhupathi explains. “We don’t have the European clay in India…we have grass courts in some cities in India. But I think…our style of play definitely suits the grass better.”
“But having said that, we won the French twice. […] We learnt how to play on all surfaces and be successful on all surfaces, which is why…we have the results.”
There were technical adjustments too. Paes revealed they used heavier racquets at Roland Garros and lighter ones at Wimbledon “because the clay courts are slower” and needed the extra weight for ball speed.
At Wimbledon, they tended towards more natural gut strings to give more feel, while Roland Garros demanded strings “a little bit more synthetic and durable”.
“We went from clay court to grass-court tennis, which was literally not even two weeks apart. The whole strategy of grass is serve and volley. In contrast, your strategy on clay is more the returns and the baseline.”
“To be the best in the world, you have to master every single surface. Sure…the majority of the tour matches and tournaments are played on the hard courts. But at the same time to really say you’re true champions of the world, you have to be able to win in every surface.”
The minutiae and nuances of most relationships in professional tennis remain shrouded in mystery. For the most part, tactics, friendships and training arrangements are not brought into the public light.
Break Point promises to be a unique artefact of tennis commentary, revealing a deep and inspiring look into this particular doubles pairing. It will stream on ZEE5 from 1 October. Directed by Nitesh Tiwari and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari.